There is something fantastical in thinking about how many of the world’s wonders emanated from Florence: Michelangelo, Leonardo, Machiavelli, opera, the piano, perfume and more. As you experience a great work of art, imagine the likes of Leonardo in their workshops and the practical manner in which artists must proceed in order for beauty to be accomplished. We can witness this magic in action at the Pampaloni silversmiths‘ workshop, just outside central Florence.
On via del Gelsomino, a road lined with low-lying facades of modern buildings that descends from piazzale Michelangelo, there is a simple edifice fronted by a gate and tufts of greenery. An unusual-looking sculpture stands in front of the door that one would miss if one doesn’t know to look for it. The straightforward, old, wooden door opens and a handsome, graying, middle-aged man, compact in his appearance and energy, welcomes you in with a wry smile. Only later do you realize that the wryness of the smile comes from the fact he knows what he is about to show you is akin to Alice entering Wonderland.
The first thing you notice is an ancient cassapanca set against the wall on the left, intricately carved and meters taller than the average human being. The only real light in the entranceway comes from the still-open front door. Several meters further, there seems to be an ethereal light that draws you in. It’s not a simple light, but one of reflections that appear to dance. Just a few steps and you enter a world of wonder. It takes a moment to realize that your mouth is hanging open, mesmerized less by the overall beauty than by the details that catch your eye. A whimsical water urn that appears not to be handcrafted, but rather spun out of some kind of silver magic. It sits effortlessly behind a glass cabinet, with a unique personality. If it could speak (and it feels like it might), it would utter the words, “Welcome to the workshop of Gianfranco Pampaloni, Florentine Silversmith. Might I share my story?”
One looks over at the compact elegant man and sees that wry smile again. He doesn’t have to say much because the artwork speaks for him. There is a wax cast of an ancient head taken from a silver life-sized sculpture of what appears to be a saint, leaning up against a corner. There are collections of silver tableware arbitrarily displayed, one of which might have been Catherine de’ Medici’s fork that she brought to Paris, giving the French the ability to aerate ingredients, such as cream. There are ornate candelabras, eye protectors made of shining silver spoons, and compendia of Judaica, such as menorahs and characterful Kiddush cups, which will be used for wine to welcome the Sabbath Queen. There are handbags with silver handles, crowns, goblets, trees, animals, finger bowls lined with Tiffany glass, urns, teapots: we’re in an artisanal silver wonderland.
The elegant man then quietly but energetically shares.
“My grandfather created all this in a shop on the Ponte Vecchio in 1902. With the coming of the First World War, the business stopped and my grandfather moved into the business of creating portholes for submarines, a complicated business because portholes had to be airtight. After the war, my grandfather continued in the trade with my father, adopting an approach to elegant silverware that focused on fine lines and restraint. When it was my turn to take over the business in 1981, I didn’t see silver only as a status symbol and a precious metal. I saw it as a metal that could be spun into exciting expressions of our imagination. And so, I created a collection in silver inspired by the work of the Roman painter Giovanni Maggi’s 1604 drawings. There were goblets, glasses and cutlery that appeared timeless, spun out of years of a sense of fun and whimsy.”
All this magic is created right here in the workshop. There are various artisans at various posts, some in front of massive spinning machines, others in front of fire torches. Some are belted into their machines, using natural body weight to shape the metal. There are polishers and engravers, each ready to explain what they do, so that the finished result is as timeless as it is beautiful. There are machines that look like giant humans flexing their muscles. There is the melting room where Gianfranco tells the story that, when he was eight years old, he and his friend got into serious trouble. The heat required to melt silver is almost 1,000 degrees centigrade and the room has an exhaust column that goes up to the roof, equipped with a fan. One day, Gianfranco’s father saw liquid running down the tube and into the silver. It was wreaking havoc and made no sense, until he discovered that his young son thought it would be funny to “pee into the fan.” There’s a touch of the renegade in Gianfranco and, with the years, he has channeled that edge into unusual beauty.
At the back of the shop is a staircase that leads up to a hidden second-floor room. It has become known in Florence as the greatest secret restaurant. Serving as a commissary for the artisans during the day, in the evening, silver adorns the tables, with just enough places for 35 guests. Candlelight illuminates the room and exclusive themed dinners are served. For a time, the food was Japanese, then Jewish delicacies were plated for a while. Getting a seat at this silversmith’s coveted dining table is one of Florence’s hardest tickets to come by. What style of food will be next? For the moment, this is Gianfranco’s secret. He does point out, however, that the throne at the head of the table came from the Maggio Musicale opera house, part of a discarded Verdi opera set. The throne is simply an extension of Gianfranco’s theatricality, as are the comedic Italian political statements sprinkled throughout the workshop, all supporting liberal ideas.
Towards the front of the expansive shop is the vault. The door is open and silver wonders line the shelves inside. To enter is to go back in time to a world where computers didn’t exist, where craftspeople worked by hand alone and their age-defying results were laid bare for those lucky enough to see them. Gianfranco digs into a bag and pulls out two cupped handfuls of beads, letting them run through his fingers.
“This is how it all starts. With these pure silver beads.”
“This is how it all starts. With these pure silver beads.”
The image of this quietly energetic man surrounded by the glistening objects of his restless imagination is a sight to behold. For a moment, you feel part of what has made Florence the birthplace of art. Inspired, one can visit the shop in via Porta Rossa where Pampaloni exclusives are available for purchase. And if one is lucky, one might be invited to the secret restaurant, where Florence, time and the imagination all come to life.